The Basque Region’s Secret Restaurant Clubs

Illustration by Mikel Casal

Behind a thick, unsigned wooden door in Elorrio, Spain, a pretty town southeast of Bilbao in the Basque region, is a restaurant-grade kitchen and a sprawling dining room with old-timey, solid pine furniture. In the past, the sturdy seats have hosted generations of men but, increasingly today, women, too.

I’m one of those women, and I’m in a txoko—a members-only restaurant of a local gastronomic society. These clubs are where groups of friends who, in many cases, have known each other since childhood, gather regularly to cook, chat, eat and imbibe.

Before the meal, I wander around and spot a table of four elderly men sitting outside with a platter of bread and grilled blood sausage. One man lifts a porron, a decanter-style vessel, and drinks red wine straight from the spout. It’s around 11 a.m.

An illustration of a person drinking wine.
Illustration by Mikel Casal

Everyone here supports local, from the produce down to the delicate flakes of Añana salt and, of course, the wine. Effervescent Txakolis from around Bilbao and Getaria pair with the seafood, while hearty Rioja Alavesa reds complement the steak.

A week later, at another txoko, Bilbotarren­ Bazkuna, interior designer Alfonso­ de Lecea stands at the grill, where he sears aged entrecôte—thin, boneless ribeye steaks—and fries Guernica peppers. He pours a full-­bodied Rioja Tempranillo at a table where 12 of his childhood mates have gathered for their monthly reunion.

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“Don’t bring your €1,000 collectable wine here,” says de Lecea. “You’re not going to impress anyone.” The table raises a glass to that. “We all know each other since we had pimples. We drink the inexpensive local stuff—it’s the way it is,” he says with a smile.

After visiting six txokos and examining their wines, I come to accept de Lecea’s words as gospel.

An illustration of a person drinking wine.
Illustration by Mikel Casal

“Our palates are very used to the taste of local wine,” says Ivan Jiménez,­ president of Txoko Guri Zer. “Rioja wine is known as some of the best in the world. Besides, why pay a fortune for something not better than yours?”

It’s hard to argue with that.

The txokos often expand or change their wine lists as the board of members rotate duty. However, they tend to stick with affordable favorites like Guri Zer’s choices of Txakoli from nearby Bodegas Itsasmendi, cherry-red Campillo Crianza and fine reds from Marqués de Riscal in the Rioja Alavesa.

These wines are straight­forward and dependable, and they accent the food and camaraderie. In a world with a seemingly endless choice of bottles, and a region with more than its fair share of  Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s this endearing loyalty that stays with me.

Published on December 24, 2018
Topics: Wine Ratings